Previewing NFL wild-card playoff games

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What’s in store for the NFL’s wildcard-playoff round? Here’s a look.

Saturday

Indianapolis (AFC 6th seed, 10-6) at Houston (AFC 3rd seed, 11-5), 4:35 p.m. ET, ESPN. I remember a phone call with Frank Reich about 55 weeks ago, one late night last December. He was bummed. He thought his shot to be a head coach was slipping away, maybe forever. And as the musical chairs filled in January, and he was left without a job again, he accepted that maybe he’d never get that shot. Then, of course, Josh McDaniels backed out of the Colt job, Reich played a huge role in Philly’s offensive explosion in the playoffs with a backup quarterback, and Colts GM Chris Ballard noticed. “One of the greatest audibles of all time,” Al Michaels called the pivot to Reich, and of course he’s right. Reich has been the perfect coach for a revived Andrew Luck, and the perfect, patient coach for a young team that started 1-5 and won nine of its last 10 to earn the NFL’s last of 12 playoff spots Sunday night in Nashville. To beat Houston, a line that allowed only 18 sacks of Andrew Luck in 16 games will have to be that good again. Jadeveon Clowney has become as dangerous a defensive force as a healthy J.J. Watt, so the Colts can’t double just one guy anymore. On the other side, Deshaun Watson got sacked a league-high 62 times, and though he had an excellent year (68.3 percent, 103.1 rating), he may have to run more than the Texans want so he can escape the Colts’ improving pressure up front. It’ll be cool to see Luck in the playoffs for the first time since the Deflategate Bowl in Foxboro four years ago. Colts and Texans split their games this year. Composite score: 58-58. Should be fun.

Seattle (NFC 5th seed, 10-6) at Dallas (NFC 5th seed, 10-6), 8:15 p.m. ET, FOX. How strange. Dallas has the league rushing champion, but Seattle had the more productive run game this year. Hmmm. Ezekiel Elliott or Chris Carson. Who’d you rather have? But Seattle, after replacing Tom Cable with Mike Solari as offensive line coach, ran for a steamrolling 2,560 yards (4.8 per rush), compared to Dallas’ 1,963 (4.5 per rush). That could help Seattle take the Dallas crowd out of the game early. Running it so well has helped Russell Wilson have his best season (35 touchdowns, seven picks, 110.9 rating). Dallas’ two young linebackers, Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith, will be vital against the run and in spying Wilson. Offensively, the Cowboys have developed enough weaponry to win without Elliott dominating, as they showed in the 36-point game at the Giants on Sunday, when Elliott was a healthy scratch. The difference here could be how much the Seattle front seven, led by veteran linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright, can dent the Cowboys’ offensive line and pressure Dak Prescott, who was sacked a surprising 56 times this year. Seattle beat Dallas in Week 3, 24-13, in the Earl Thomas middle-finger game. Seems like 12 months ago, not three.

Sunday

Los Angeles Chargers (AFC 5th seed, 12-4) at Baltimore (AFC 4th seed, 10-6), 1:05 p.m., CBS. The rematch of one of the best games of the NFL season, 15 days and 2,700 miles apart, should be compelling. Even though the Chargers led the game for only one minute, it felt a lot closer than 22-10, Ravens, when they met at the StubHub Center in California Dec. 22, a defensive duel that got broken up in the second half with a Lamar Jackson touchdown bomb and a late Antonio Gates fumble-turned-Ravens-TD. The Chargers are going to have to find a way to stop the flood of the Ravens’ running game. In the seven games quarterbacked by Jackson, Baltimore has rushed for 267, 242, 207, 194, 242, 159 and 296 yards. While the rest of the league is closer to 65-percent passing, the Ravens of the last seven weeks have been 65 percent runs. It’s like old-time football. When I spoke to Jackson on Sunday night, he wanted to be sure I understood he did more than just run. “I mean, we’re throwing the ball out there too,” he said. “I don’t know about back in the day. We are doing by design. We play a complete game.” The run is a weapon Baltimore didn’t have pre-Jackson, and it’s been a revelation to watch it. For the Chargers, playing Baltimore a second time in such a short window has to help the Chargers in recognition. Philip Rivers must play better than he did in the first meeting, when he threw a pick on the first Charger snap of the game and never had a drive longer than 35 yards. The NFL has become a mega-points league, but I doubt this will be a game with 40 points scored. The Chargers will make Lamar Jackson beat them with his arm (or try to), while the Ravens will try to zero-blitz pocket passer Rivers into mistakes. Not sure how much this comes into play Sunday, but the Chargers are a 7-1 road team this year. No other AFC team has more than five road wins.

Philadelphia (NFC 6th seed, 9-7) at Chicago (NFC 3rd seed, 12-4), 4:40 p.m., NBC. The heart says Nick Foles. The head says Khalil Mack. Watching the Chicago defense swarm around Kirk Cousins all day Sunday (albeit in a climate-controlled stadium in Minneapolis; who knows what the conditions will be Sunday afternoon on the shores of Lake Michigan), I wondered how any quarterback would have the time and space to dice up the Bears D. The presence of Mack allows Akiem Hicks and Leonard Floyd to take their star turns. Foles won’t be cowed by them, or by the noise that will make a silent snap count imperative. But if his ribs or chest affect him, that’s another distraction from playing a tight offensive game. The rise of the Bears has been more of a defensive story, but they’ll need the shifty Tarik Cohen to make plays against an oppressive Philly front that’s been dominant at times but also generous against the run. Three times in the season’s second half the Eagles allowed more than 140 rushing yards to a foe. Clearly that’s how the Bears will want to want to play this game, with an efficient and clock-eating run game. The Eagles are dangerous. They’ve played in many more bigger games than the Bears have over the past 13 months, and an early deficit won’t rock Philly. I’ve got a feeling this is a tight game late in the fourth quarter.

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Why the New York Jets deserve the controversy, dysfunction surrounding them

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1. I think the Jets architecture job is not the one to take if you want to run a franchise, Peyton Manning. To be charitable, the Jets are not close to contention.

2. I think I won’t be the first to use this rationale for my opinion about what happened when Mike Maccagnan got dismissed the other day as Jets GM, but it’s the first thing that occurred to me: The Jets truly deserve this controversy. A few points:

• I have no sympathy for Maccagnan, who lorded over a 14-35 team since New Year’s Day 2016. Only Cleveland and San Francisco have won fewer games since then. But by my math, Maccagnan just spent $235 million in free agency this offseason, a gargantuan sum. He just had the keys to the draft and, apparently with minimal input from the head coach, made Quinnen Williams the third overall pick in the draft. He was fired 19 days after the draft. What owner in his right mind allows a GM he figures he may well fire run a crucial off-season? Christopher Johnson, that’s who.

• Adam Gase is going to have a major say on who becomes the next GM of the Jets. Gase was 23-26 in his three-year stint coaching the Dolphins, and, though the quarterback position was plagued by injuries while he was there, he’s supposed to be a quarterback guru, and the Dolphins, again, are starting from scratch at the position after firing Gase four-and-a-half months ago. I like Gase well enough. But what exactly has he done, first, to earn a head-coaching job after his three years in Miami … and, second, to play a significant role in picking the architect of the new Jets?

• I assume the reports of Gase not wanting Le’Veon Bell for $13.5 million a year are true. (I don’t blame him.) But the leaks in that building are never-ending, and in this case, the leaks could drive a wedge between a guy who doesn’t seem very happy to be a Jet in the first place, Bell, and the guy who’s going to be calling his number this fall. Gase better figure a way to tamp that down. I don’t know if he can.

• How do you have faith in the Jets to get this GM thing right now? And what smart GM-candidate type (Joe Douglas or Louis Riddick or Daniel Jeremiah) would want to take his one shot—because most GMs get one shot at running a team—working for Christopher Johnson?

• If I were Mike Greenberg, I’d be burying my head in my hands this morning, wondering why oh why did I get stuck loving this franchise? How can season-ticket-holders send in their money this year thinking they’re going to see the turnaround season of a team that’s won 5, 5, and 4 games the past three years?

• Sam Darnold doesn’t coach.

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The lessons Chris Long learned from playing with Patriots, Eagles, Rams

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Chris Long, who retired over the weekend after an 11-year NFL career that ended with two Super Bowl rings (in 2016 with New England and 2017 with Philadelphia), and an NFL Man of the Year Award (in 2018) for his work in U.S. social justice and building fresh-water wells for thousands in Africa, on the lessons he takes with him into retirement:

“I learned to never make a decision based on just one thing. The decision to retire was complicated. It was based on health, which is still very good, and family, we have two small children, and football fit, which includes a chance to win and my role and geography. Philadelphia is where I wanted to play a couple more years. I love Philadelphia. But as a player I learned the most important thing to me is Sunday, and having a chance to be a big part of it. It seemed like player-coach was kind of the role that was going to be carved out for me—maybe playing 10, 12, 15 plays a game. I’m a rhythm player. I need to set people up, I need to be in the flow of the game. If I sit on the bench for three series, I can’t get rhythm, and I’ll get cold and maybe I’ll hurt myself. Some people think that’s great—play less and you won’t get hurt. Man, I want to play ball. In Philadelphia, it didn’t seem there was much of a chance to compete there. But they were honest with me the whole time. I appreciate the honesty. I’ll always love Philadelphia and the Eagles, but I didn’t want Week 4, 5, to come around and people think, Whoa, where’s Chris? Did Chris retire? I’d rather do it this way than just fade out. And I didn’t want to start over again across the country somewhere.

“I learned so much in my career. Getting drafted second overall, and going to St. Louis, and the fact that we were losing, I just thought, I am not gonna fold. I am not a loser. I am gonna be a bright spot. I am gonna give these fans, who I deeply appreciate for their dedication, the respect they deserve . Anyone playing in that era in St. Louis knows how bad it was at times. It was carnage, in so many ways. It was a test of my will. Do I get irritated by the no-Pro Bowl thing, never making a Pro Bowl? Yeah, I do. Fifty sacks in the first six years, with no one watching, on a bad team. I just felt the narrative should be, That kid panned out. But that’s okay—it was a labor of love. I have zero regrets.

“In New England, I learned so much about football. I always thought I was a smart player, even though I never thought about anything but the six inches in front of my face. In New England, I was forced to learn so many schematic concepts. In my career playing football, nobody asked me to do as much as Bill Belichick did. I might be 3-technique, or a linebacker, or a linebacker dropping into coverage more than ever, or playing inside more than ever. I’ll always remember how much I learned watching Bill in practice. He can coach any position as good as any position coach in league. He can walk around the field and stop drills and coach each position—at the highest level. And the quality of the dudes. Solid men. The right kind of people.

“Tom Brady blew me away. Who’s the most famous athlete of our generation: Tom Brady? LeBron? Messi? Ronaldo? Serena Williams? Maybe I haven’t been around enough to know how the biggest stars really act. But Brady is a normal guy. When I got there, here comes Tom. ‘Hey Chris, I’m Tom, nice to meet you.’ Well, yeah, I know you’re Tom. A lot of people want to hate him for all the success, and I understand how you can dislike the Patriots, but I cannot understand how you can dislike Tom.

“That Super Bowl against Atlanta … when we were way behind, I’m thinking, ‘I waited my whole life to be here, and this is a nightmare. This is the worst nightmare I have ever had.’ If we lost that night, I very possibly would have retired a bitter man. But winning it breathed life into me.

“Going to Philadelphia, I felt I found a home. Best sports city in America. But how different my situation was. I went from team captain with the Rams two years before that to winning the Super Bowl in New England to starting on the bottom in Philly. I was an average Joe. I was challenged. I learned how much being a team, being together, really means. We were a case study for whatever you believe. Either we were an anomaly or we proved you could do good things and win in pro sports. We happened to have guys who were good players who cared. I remember winning a Monday Night Football game, falling asleep at 4 or 5 o’clock, and waking up for a train to Harrisburg to work with state legislators on policies. It just showed how much we could make changes in things that matter, and play really good football too. You can be a football player and a citizen. It’s gratifying when young players come up and say they’re inspired to do more because of things that Malcolm Jenkins or Torrey Smith have done, or me.

“I’ve always tried to be me first and a football player second. When I came into football, I didn’t want to be this piece of wreckage who couldn’t move or have a normal life. But I learned you can’t predict the future. I thought I’d play eight years. I thought I’d retire at 30. But I played 11, and now I’m 34.

“NFL Man of the Year … I never felt deserving of it. I am not the best person in the NFL. I never want to get up there promoting myself as some infallible person. I was very honored. But I was also conflicted that people saw me as this community service guy, not a player. Nobody saw me as the player I was in my prime. I don’t want to be known as Community Service Guy; I want to be known as a guy who busted his ass for 11 years at his craft. But I do appreciate the fact that people saw that I played for free for one year, that I was part of a group that built 61 wells for people to get fresh water in Africa, and that we’ve got 220,000 people drinking from our wells. I will not downplay that stuff. But I am not some angel, believe me. I don’t have a brand. My brand is me.

“Retirement is interesting. It is something I feared for a long time. It is an existential crisis. I’ve been doing something since high school, working toward a goal. I fantasize about crossing the threshold, but at the same time it’s something you can be deathly afraid of.

“I am excited about the next phase of life. I’m launching a digital media company. I will have my own pod. I’m just excited about being able to control the narrative. I like to create. Maybe I’ll work at a network. Whatever I do, I’ll be me.”

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